Two veteran St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies are facing off in a contest to replace the retiring Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R).

Vying for the post are Sgt. David D. Zylak, a Democrat, and Sgt. Mickey M. Bailey, a Republican. Both men became deputies in the early 1980s, but their career tracks have been very different and constitute an important issue in the election.

Zylak, a 19-year veteran, is currently a supervisor in the patrol division and has worked as a detective, patrol officer and traffic safety coordinator. Throughout the campaign, he has touted his experience as a commander, especially his 2 1/2 years as acting head of the County Detention Center.

"I think I have the experience necessary to do the job," Zylak said.

A former president of the St. Mary's Fraternal Order of Police, Zylak has picked up endorsements from the FOP, former sheriff Wayne L. Petit and former state delegate Ernest Bell. A Pennsylvania native, Zylak moved to Southern Maryland 24 years ago when he became a forest ranger for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Zylak's record as jail commander has come under fire this year since an internal charge became public that accuses him of failing to perform his duty in connection with a detention center suicide in September 2001. Investigators found that a teenage inmate with a history of suicide attempts should have been placed on a 24-hour watch, but was not. The 19-year-old hung himself with bedsheets.

Zylak has declined to comment on the charge. Bailey also has not commented on the charge, though he says voters frequently ask for his reaction.

At 5-foot-9, Bailey was too short to be a St. Mary's deputy when he graduated from high school, so instead he packed his bags for New York and studied theater. When he returned in 1983, the height requirement was gone, and he signed up to be a deputy.

Bailey is now a patrol supervisor, but he made his reputation directing the sheriff's initiatives in the schools, including the placement of deputies in all high schools and the anti-drug program, DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education).

Bailey has vowed to keep those programs in place.

"I know you think [deputies] are sitting in the high schools and not doing anything," Bailey once told a group of skeptical officers. "I'm telling you, that's just not the case. If they're not at the high schools, there are going to be a lot more calls there."

Zylak and Bailey both say they will strive to improve relations with the county commissioners, who have publicly feuded with Voorhaar over funding. They also say they will work to increase the number of deputies.

"I feel like we need six new corporals today," Bailey said. "That is a number the county commissioners can work with."

Both men say they will look into obtaining collective bargaining rights for deputies. They have also proposed ideas to rehabilitate the department's image, which has been battered by recent controversies, including the jail suicide.

Bailey has proposed a citizens advisory committee, which would create a web of contacts between neighborhoods and deputies. The idea is to give citizens some voice in how their neighborhoods are policed, though the committee should not be confused with a citizens review board, which in other jurisdictions has had some investigative powers.

Zylak says the department should get accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., a national group that sets standards for police departments.

"It would increase our professional image with the public," Zylak said.